May 16 2011
Mark C O’Flaherty
London’s young, fashion-forward men have, over the past couple of years, seized on a short version of the classic trench as their de facto outerwear: double-breasted, jauntily collared, belted at the waist. Along with a striped Breton top and thick-rimmed Kissinger-style spectacles, it has become a staple element of the east London hipster uniform, and versions have appeared in just about every high-street outlet.
Now, in a reversal of the normal pattern in fashion, there’s been a trickle-up effect. Reworked versions – longer and infinitely more luxurious than these chain-store casual trenches – are now seen as serious clothing for grown-ups with their own style. The focus is on flawless performance and refinement of styling: stay dry, but look sharp. Take Aquascutum, which has narrowed its silhouettes and lightened the weight of its textiles by employing waterproofing techniques used for high-performance sportswear. Almost every international collection – from Alexander McQueen to Issey Miyake – has its own take on the trench, and a four-figure coat designed to resist a downpour has become as desirable as it is practical.
When the recently rebooted heritage brand Mackintosh (now with style-savvy Japanese owners) opened a Mayfair store at the start of the year, it wasn’t among the gent’s outfitters on Jermyn Street but on Mount Street, the thoroughfare that has, since the opening of seafood restaurant Scott’s a few years ago, become a barometer of London high style. From the new Roland Mouret store opposite the revamped Connaught hotel to designer Rick Owens’ elephant-grey modernist bunker on South Audley Street, the area provides a snapshot of the most influential international brands, including Aesop, Balenciaga and Christian Louboutin.
Mackintosh’s arrival on the same stretch as Lanvin, in a store designed by Masamichi Katayama with glass cabinets reminiscent of a Victorian natural-history museum, was a bold statement of intent: performance wear can be as covetable as fine leather or vicuna. Sleek men’s pieces that echo Prada at its most austere hang alongside frisky Holly Golightly polka dot A-line coats for women. As Daniel Dunko, MD of Mackintosh says, “We now have a customer discovering the brand for the first time through our associations with Junya Watanabe, 10 Corso Como and Kitsuné. These pieces have an appeal to the stylish and fashion-aware that goes beyond mere practicalities.”
Mackintosh Cloth is a trademarked textile as well as a clothing brand, and the company continues to produce textiles for rainwear at Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Nigel Cabourn. It has been producing functional textiles since the early-19th century and, at its Mount Street store, vintage uniforms for British Rail workers and second world war dispatch riders are exhibited behind glass. As cool as its collaborations are perceived to be right now, the brand is about nothing if not science: these coats keep you dry. They are waterproof, not just showerproof. Everything else is detail – but what detail: the reassuringly stiff one-button Dunkeld (£615) in navy or blue is minimalist and sharp, while the softer, looser, double-breasted Fetlar (£465) in black, with the Mackintosh name in white type on the buttons, is the most elegant use of a techno-fabric that you are likely to encounter. All of the coats are cut to work as either an overcoat over a suit (buy one size up from your usual), or in place of a jacket.
There was a time when style played second fiddle to practicality. In the archives of Alfred Dunhill there are images of a 1903 attempt at rainwear, the Umbrella Coat. It looks hilariously HG Wells: part garment, part vehicular tent. “It was ludicrous, you could have swum in the sea in it,” says Jason Beckley, Dunhill’s global marketing director. “The British look that our contemporary rainwear has today is very elegant. Things have been quite modernist for a period; now our collections are more referential, with shawl collars and wider lapels. We are a brand for customers who know their own style; we’re not trying to define anyone’s look.” This season’s reversible mac (£825) comes in stone to blue and grey to black. It is fresh, smart and classic.
“Men’s rainwear is easier to wear than it used to be,” says Ivan Donovan, menswear buyer at multibrand boutique Browns. “It’s more breathable, and innovations in coatings mean the technology is less obvious – practically invisible to the eye. They can be applied to any textile to make them water-repellant. I thought that last year’s Mackintosh/Junya Watanabe collaboration was particularly strong in terms of style, as was Burberry.”
Burberry has riffed on its raincoats since it relaunched as a premium, directional label in the mid-1990s. The Burberry Mac has, of course, never gone away, and there are no fewer than 15 versions of a trench in the current London collection – including a short, cotton gabardine number (£895) that many east London hipsters would give their right arm for – but the most interesting and stylish pieces are found in the premium Prorsum range. Much of the current collection features a military, or aviator style; a double-breasted poplin trench (£1,395) carries brown leather buckle details on its cuffs and epaulettes. Many of the coats have rubber-bonded inside seams (the tape is detailed with Burberry branding) to prevent any wet-weather seepage. So central is the raincoat to the Burberry brand that it curates the artofthetrench.com website, which started with a gallery of images of “real people” in their trenches, photographed by Scott Schuman of the street fashion blog The Sartorialist. It’s now updated with open submissions from customers.
The trench coat may be aligned with British brands such as Burberry, Dunhill and, of course, Aquascutum (whose Walton Raincoat, £695, is a standout style), but it also has a long, emotive history with Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. This season YSL have a beautiful showerproof cotton gabardine, Le Trench (£1,230). It’s a luxe, masculine coat with a fashionable edge, yet classic enough for Monday to Friday in the city. Menswear portal Mr Porter stocks a more pared-down, updated YSL raincoat (£825) in sand cotton. It has a smart, well-tailored line, with concealed buttons and two oversized pockets, sized precisely to accommodate an iPad – a nice touch.
Many of the more adventurous design houses are surprisingly good sources of men’s rainwear. Balenciaga’s double-breasted raincoat (£1,385) is in a sleek anthracite grey with a contrasting leather collar, while the sand-coloured, voluminous A-line showerproof coat (£1,195) at Alexander McQueen has a quirky curved front hem and interesting, but not overly complicated, lapel and buttoning details.
Issey Miyake has always had an innovative approach to fabric development, and this season’s showerproof single-breasted black overcoat (£850) has an absolutely modern texture and cut, with an exterior breast pocket and single back vent that can be secured with discreet drawstrings. It can be placed in an overhead locker for a long-haul flight and still look presentable on arrival, and is chic enough to wear as you walk through the drizzle to the Royal Opera House.
Also making a splash is Moncler, which has a devoted following and occupies a position at the off-duty, sportier end of the performance-wear market. At the same time, it’s relaxed, with minimal exterior branding. This season’s black showerproof jacket (£585), with a zip-collar concealing a drawstring hood, is particularly versatile. “Moncler has interesting, contemporary pieces for this season, particularly the Grenoble collection which is cut and detailed like shirts,” says Ivan Donovan at Browns.
Indeed, some of the most appealing rainwear right now is from overseas heritage or heritage-inspired brands. Italian brand Sealup has produced performance-wear for its own label, and others, since 1935. Its Filippo Chiesa range features sharp, minimalist, Milanese-styled coats, while the eponymous Sealup line is more dapper and traditional in style. The coats (both from €500) are stocked at the Sealup Club factory store, a half-hour drive from central Milan, while the company continues to meticulously and discreetly produce rainwear for some of the biggest international designers around.
On a much smaller scale, Stockholm-based Stutterheim makes just one kind of raincoat (£350), which comes in matte black (the Arholma Svart) or dusty white (the Arholma Vit). Each is handsewn, and the seamstress responsible handwrites her name on the label. It’s based on a 1960s Swedish fisherman’s coat, reworked by Alexander Stutterheim and former Yohji Yamamoto designer Kumi Edström Kawaji.
“I was tired of wearing golfer wear in a downpour,” says Stutterheim. “I wanted to produce a state-of-the-art raincoat. No Gore-Tex. No Velcro. No reflectors. Handmade.” The Arholma might just be the only raincoat you’ll ever need. It’s a serious piece of kit, so you could wear it for an unwelcome storm-lashing on holiday but, at the same time, its pared-down Scandinavian style makes it fit for the city too. In parallel with Burberry’s Art of the Trench web project, Stutterheim has a Facebook page that invites customers to send pictures of themselves in the Arholma, along with their musings on why they feel melancholy in the rain. “Swedish melancholy at its driest” is the company motto.
In cities such as Stockholm, New York and London, where rain is as inevitable as the loss of an umbrella, there comes a time when every man should own his perfect raincoat. While no one with anywhere to get in a hurry would ever invite a downpour, once you’ve acquired an Arholma, a Mackintosh Dunkeld, a Burberry Prorsum trench or any of the new crop of all-weather coats, it’s impossible not to hope for dark clouds to assemble, just for an excuse to dress for the occasion.